"What is this babbler trying to say?" Acts 17:18

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Logic and Learning

I took my logic final yesterday. It does not follow,however, that I am finally logical. So glad was I to be done with the class that I began to clear my desk of all things relating to logic. (I leave you to interpret the ambiguity and decide if I mean relating to the class or logic itself).

Apart from my main textbook I have a small Mars Hill exercise book that I thumbed through at the beginning of my class and subsequently ignored the rest of the semester. I picked it up again after my final and gave it one parting glance. Skimming the list of fallacies, my eye caught one that was not in my other textbook; however, I recognized it anyway. The term “Bulverism” was coined by C.S.Lewis and that explains why I recognized it and also why it is not an official term for a fallacy in other textbooks. Bulverism does have its corresponding term in my text as the “ad hominem circumstantial.” That is, the second arguer attacks the person of the first arguer by claiming something about the circumstances of the first arguer that makes him or her argue that way. For instance, “he claims the book is exciting and that everybody should read it but he only says that because he is paid by the publisher.”

Since any excuse will serve that allows me to read C.S.Lewis, I no sooner saw the term Bulverism than I pulled down God in the Dock and reread the essay: “'Bulverism:' or, the Foundation of 20th Century Thought.” Just like the ad hominem circumstantial, Bulverism ignores the actual truth or falsehood of an argument and instead tries (and often succeeds) in discrediting the arguer. “In other words,” Lewis explains, “you must show that a man is wrong before you start explaining why he is wrong. The modern method is to assume without discussion that he is wrong and then distract his attention from this (the only real issue) by busily explaining how he became so silly” (273). Lewis records the origin of Bulverism,
a vice so common that I have had to invent a name for it.... Some day I am going to write the biography of its imaginary inventor, Ezekiel Bulver, whose destiny was determined at the age of five when he heard his mother say to his father—who had been maintaining that the two sides of a triangle were together greater than the third—'Oh you say that because you are a man.' 'At that moment,' E. Bulver assures us, 'there flashed across my opening mind the great truth that refutation is no necessary part of argument. Assume that your opponent is wrong, and then explain his error, and the world will be at your feet. Attempt to prove that he is wrong or (worse still) try to find out whether he is wrong or right, and the national dynamism of our age will thrust you to the wall' (273).

Why—the day after my final when, at last, there is no need to think about logic—do I write about this subject that, frankly, I didn't like very much while I was taking a class on it? After writing the paragraphs above I asked myself that question and came to the realization that this fallacy became interesting to me because it is connected to something else I am interested in, namely, C.S.Lewis. We learn things best if we are not forced to learn them; when something or someone we love makes us want to find out more. I think George MacDonald had it right when he said: “we must learn things as they come to us and when we want to. Otherwise there will be little remembering. You can never make yourself like a thing” (65). And now, whether you liked it or not, you've read the history of Bulverism and George MacDonald's philosophy of education. The question is, will you remember it or, like me before yesterday, think it is the most boring thing in the world.

Lewis, C. S. God in the Dock: Essays On Theology and Ethics. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, Grand Rapids, Michigan. 1993.
MacDonald, George. The Tutor's First Love. originally David Elginbrod. 1863. Bethany House Publishers, Minneapolis, Minnesota. 1989.

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